LAS VEGAS — When John Robinson announced he would be stepping down as UNLV's football coach in 2004, the school administration knew it needed to make a big hire to run its struggling program.
The Rebels ended up turning to another Mountain West Conference team — Utah — to find the right man. UNLV lured the Utes' offensive coordinator, Mike Sanford, who developed the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft, quarterback Alex Smith, and oversaw an explosive offense that helped produce an undefeated season and bust the Bowl Championship Series.
Sanford's goal is to post similar accomplishments at UNLV.
"Our expectation level should be, and my expectation level is, to win the Mountain West Conference championship, go to a bowl game and to be ranked in the top 25 every year," he has said.
The way Sanford sees it, UNLV is a sleeping giant.
"I have been preparing for this moment for 27 years as a coach and I am extremely honored and excited to be leading UNLV football," Sanford said when he was hired. " The UNLV job was one I looked upon with great respect over the years. Because of the way this university and city are emerging, this football program is a gold mine. This is a great community and campus that offer so many opportunities and advantages. This football program is ready to explode."
Well, eight games into his first season in Las Vegas, that hasn't happened yet. Not that anyone expected it to happen soon.
Under Sanford, the Rebels (2-6 overall, 1-4 in MWC play) have revamped both their offense and defense. Sanford installed the shotgun spread offense, which he brought with him from Utah, and hired former Air Force defensive secondary coach Vic Shealy to oversee a multiple defense.
As BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall brings his team to Sam Boyd Stadium for a Saturday (1 p.m., Ch. 14) showdown with UNLV, he notices plenty of positive changes with the Rebels.
"Schematically is where I see the biggest changes. Obviously there is a new system on offense and on defense," Mendenhall said. "I think with that has come renewed enthusiasm for playing the game. I thought Coach Robinson did an outstanding job and had a quality staff, and I think Coach Sanford has assembled the same. I think it's only a matter of time before the results on the field show in their program in terms of wins. I've been impressed with their speed and athleticism. . . . Miscues at inopportune times are really the difference right now in why they're not winning more games, but it certainly is not reflective of capability."
The Rebels, fresh off of a bye week, are trying to generate momentum for the future and a victory over BYU would be a huge step in that direction.
"This is a homecoming game, a big game. We're looking forward to it," Sanford said. "BYU's playing very well. They're scoring a lot of points and it seems like they've improved a lot as the season has gone on. We've got our work cut out for us but we're excited about playing at home."
Mendenhall says UNLV, which defeated the Cougars a year ago in Provo, poses a challenge.
"I haven't heard much that UNLV is a good football team, and I think that has to do with their 2-6 record, but as we prepare for them and look at the matchups and the difficulty they present to us, we think we have a very difficult test ahead," he said.
UNLV has proven to be solid in its run defense and should give the Cougars a battle in the trenches.
"I think they play the run effectively and they're probably the most physical front we've played to this point," Mendenhall said. "I think that when they know you're going to run the football, they're very effective at stopping it. I think they're solid at the point of attack, and with the scheme emphasis they've changed they are very similar to the defense that we play. Their coordinator came from Air Force, so I think there have been some modifications and some enthusiasm that he's added to the defensive players. But athleticism in general, besides being physical up front, whether it's offense or defense, the way they run and change direction, is really what stands out when you consider UNLV."
While BYU is coming off its highest-scoring game of the season — 62 points in a win over Air Force — the Rebels have given up big points of late. UNLV has surrendered 42 points in three of its last four games in losses to Wyoming, Air Force and Utah.
Four of the last five games between BYU and UNLV have been decided by a touchdown or less.
Cougars on the air
BYU (4-4, 3-2) at UNLV (2-6, 1-4)
Saturday, 1 p.m.
Sam Boyd Stadium
TV: Ch. 14
Radio: 1160AM, 102.7FM